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How Safe is Our Water?
- The Threat of Terrorism

FBI says al-Qaida after water supply
Memo says Bin Laden backers scoured Web for attack ideas
MSNBC STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

Jan. 31st - The FBI on Wednesday sent a bulletin to computer security experts around the country indicating that al-Qaida terrorists may have been studying American dams and water-supply systems in preparation for new attacks. The bulletin was sent after U.S. authorities found a computer belonging to a person with indirect ties to Osama bin Laden that contained architectural and engineering software related to dams and other water-retaining structures, according to the FBI.

They specifically sought information on water supply and wastewater management practices in the U.S. and abroad.

IN THE BULLETIN, the FBI indicates members of al-Qaida have scoured the Web in search of methods for gaining control of water supply facilities and wastewater treatment plants through the computer networks used by U.S. utility companies.
Existence of the bulletin was first reported by computer security firm SecurityFocus.com.
The bulletin was not made public, but instead was sent by the FBI`s National Infrastructure Protection Center to about 3,000 members of the center`s InfraGard program, an information-sharing partnership between the FBI and private industry, according to SecurityFocus.com.

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have received indications that al-Qaida members have sought information on Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems available on multiple SCADA-related Web sites," reads the bulletin, according to SecurityFocus. "They specifically sought information on water supply and wastewater management practices in the U.S. and abroad."

Such systems are used by utility companies and municipalities to control equipment at unmanned facilities from a central location. The systems are generally not on the public Internet, but are connected through dedicated communications channels that link a control center to hundreds of "remote terminal units.". These in turn control water pumps and other equipment.
The FBI did not say where the computer which contained the architectural and engineering software was found or who owned it.
The FBI told SecurityFocus that the bulletin is not a full-blown alert.

&334;It just says be on the lookout," FBI supervisory special agent Steven Berry told the Web site.
"There is some information that suggests that they [al-Qaida] are looking at this... There are potential interests in water supplies, and other infrastructures."

Remote control of water or sewage plants is not merely a hypothetical concern. Two years ago, a frustrated computer hacker, seeking retribution for being fired, caused treatment plants in Queensland, Australia to overflow. The break-in caused millions of gallons of raw sewage to be dumped into creeks and parks on the Sunshine Coast, a popular tourist and holiday destination.
And there have been incidents of accidental water contamination that have been deadly in the past.
Two years ago, seven people died and more than 2,300 became sick after bacteria infiltrated water pipes following torrential rains in Walkterton, Ontario, Canada. In 1993, dozens died and about 400,000 fell sick when a rare parasite named cryptosporidium tainted the water supply of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

However, some in the water industry say intentionally wreaking havoc with the country`s water supply is far easier said than done. Poisoning a reservoir poses immense logistical problems - immense amounts of poison or bacteria would have to be dropped into a water basin to counteract the effects of delusion, says Dr. Tom Walski, Vice President of Engineering at Haestad Methods. His firm makes software that can be used by plants to simulate a water supply contamination incident.
While Walski concedes remote computer control of plants by a hacker is feasible, the threat wouldn`t rise beyond the level of a serious prank.
"The kind of things you can do is shut off pumps, flood pipes, so the system would not work well that day. Not the kind of thing where you kill people," Walski said. "These are more nuisance problems."

The nation`s water system is a delicate balance of interlocking components that includes: the water supply system (dams, reservoirs, wells, etc.); water treatment system; and the water distribution system (pipes, pumps storage tanks, etc.). These systems are mostly aging and in urgent need of upgrading, not simply to bolster them from terrorist attack but to keep them adequately handling the growing water needs of the 21st Century.

Although water authorities have contingency plans, the truth is most haven`t made complete vulnerability assessments. Click on the topics above for a look at the various parts of our water system and their risks.

Risk: "raw" water systems: these include reservoirs, lakes or rivers. Likelihood of contamination is low given that several freighter cars of toxin would have to be dumped into the supply for any effect. Even then the massive dilution effect of the raw water supply is the best defense. However, such systems are nearly impossible to completely physically secure, leaving them vulnerable to such attacks.
Risk: low water intakes: The potential for contamination increases as water dilution decreases, and such is the case for water intakes. There are 6,800 public supply drinking water intakes on rivers alone in the U.S. Likewise, intakes at the mouths of reservoirs or lakes are also vulnerable targets. Contaminates introduced at the intakes have a far better chance of reaching the population than if introduced elsewhere. Real-time monitoring equipment can help forestall this threat.
Risk: medium water treatment: Here the physical assets of the facility are at risk. The supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) computer systems also are a concern, experts say. SCADA allow remote control operations and monitor system status. Pull a SCADA system offline and the facility is `blind` to any possible contaminate in the water.
Risk: high water distribution: This component of the water supply is the most vulnerable. Pipelines wander for thousands of unprotected miles; aqueducts snake through largely unpopulated areas. A person with a crude knowledge of hydraulics and a bicycle tire pump and access to a kitchen faucet could introduce toxins into any local water distribution system, thus endangering thousands. There are few robust security methods in place to protect these distribution systems.
Risk: very high interlocking dependencies: The water system is dependent on other critical infrastructures, such as the electrical grid, to help move water through the system. If the electrical grid fails it could domino into the water system causing disaster there, too. Some water authorities have installed back-up generators; however, many large systems haven`t. Any disruption to the chemical and transportation industries also puts the water supply system at risk. Water authorities need chemicals to treat the water and trucks or railroads to get them the chemicals.

Sources: Various water-industry experts, reports.
In addition to the utility company warnings, the NIPC bulletin released Wednesday noted al-Qaida interest in insecticides and pest control products at several Web sites."
Also according to the bulletin, a computer belonging to a bin Laden associate was found to contain structural architecture computer programs, including AutoCAD, CATIGE, Microstran and BEAM, "that suggested the individual was interested in structural engineering as it related to dams and other water-retaining structures."
The same unnamed individual had a program used to identify soil types using the Unified Soil Classification System, according to the bulletin.

Earlier this month, a number of water supply experts conceded to MSNBC.com that the country`s 54,065 public and private water systems were indeed vulnerable.
"Although recognized in the past, the vulnerability of our water systems to deliberate acts has not received sufficient attention," said Richard Luthy, chair of the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council, in congressional testimony last year. "The reasons include the fact that simply developing and maintaining our existing water system received primary attention," he said.

The darker angels of the water security issue are old, crumbling pipelines and treatment plants. The "reality is that many components of our water systems are aging and need repairs, replacement, or upgrades," Luthy told Congress.
The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies has asked Congress for $57 billion over a five year period targeted at drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.

MSNBC.com`s Bob Sullivan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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